There is no denying that the history of entertainment includes some really messed up stuff. Sure, we’ve had our Shakespeares and Mozarts; but at various times, we were also gaga over gladiator battles, cockfights, bear baiting, and the cringe-worthy tradition of blackface and minstrel shows.
With all the progress we’ve made moving toward nobler forms of theatre, with almost no forms of animal torture at all, we tend to think of ours as an era of modern entertainment. Look how progressive the theater has become! we think, while buying Hamilton tickets on our smartphones and basking in the air-conditioning and free wifi at our local Starbucks. Truly this is a golden age and we pat ourselves on the back for all the ways we are far superior to generations past. Yay!
Although we have certainly come a long way, it seems to me that there are still some aspects of theatrical entertainment that are stuck in the dark ages. Let me tell you the story of an act I saw recently:
The performer walked onstage and introduced a little pill. He told the crowd that anyone who took this pill would be compelled to do anything he asked. To add even more intrigue to his plot, he stated that volunteers would likely be unable to remember what happened to them while under the influence of the drug. “But trust me,” he said, “it’ll be fun.”
A young woman from the audience was brought to the stage and given the pill. In an instant, she became visibly drowsy and disoriented. The performer guided her through a series of increasingly embarrassing stunts, including the revelation of personal information, private fantasies and even the performance of simulated sex acts. The audience was encouraged to laugh and cheer. “This is fun,” the performer kept saying, but I couldn’t help feeling deeply uncomfortable.
The show concluded with the volunteer sobering up, confirming that the pill had indeed made her unaware of anything she had done during the act, and she was unable to recall her actions. With that, she was sent back to her seat to a round of applause. The performer then pointed out that the entire show had been video recorded and everyone should buy a copy, joking that “It would make great blackmail material.”
I think most of us would agree that this act is morally dubious, to say the least. A volunteer under the influence of a powerful drug that removes their ability to consent should not be made to discuss private information, do embarrassing stunts, or perform pseudosexual acts. This show, which encourages friends, coworkers, and strangers to point and laugh at someone made vulnerable and then taken advantage of for the amusement of the crowd, should not be sold as entertainment.
Now take a minute to reread the description of the act, but replace that little pill with hypnosis. If it’s not okay to remove someone’s consent with a drug, then why should it be okay to do it through hypnosis in the context of a magic show?
The first hypnosis performance (or hypno show) I ever saw gave me an icky feeling I couldn’t explain, a sort of unsettling anxiousness in the pit of my stomach. Maybe it was just that particular performer or the burrito I’d had for lunch, but it made me question what I was being asked to see as entertainment. After speaking with many theatre people, magicians, and even a few psychologists who’ve had similar experiences, I realized that this sort of act falls into a moral grey area that we have avoided talking about in the worlds of magic and variety arts.
The narrative a hypno show is selling to the audience implies by its nature that it is acceptable to “make” someone perform embarrassing or sexual acts for the enjoyment of a crowd when that person is in a state of suggestibility similar to that created by drugs or alcohol — which, of course, it is not. The idea that these shows are usually marketed to colleges and universities is even more unsettling, considering the recent focus on educating students about the importance of consent in an effort to address the very real threat of date rape. I vividly remember as the entertainment director for ACAD (Alberta College of Art & Design) being inundated with promotional material from hypnotists with quotes like “I’ll have your students humping the walls.”
Whatever the moral implications, hypnosis is a fascinating phenomenon that reveals some amazing things about the human mind, and it’s certain to wow crowds. I can see why people would be drawn to it, and I would even call myself an advocate for science and research in this field, but is it appropriate to sell as a comedy show?
I should clarify that I am talking only about the NARRATIVE of a hyno show, whether the effect it has on people is real for the people under it’s influence or not is not the issue we are discussing here. Is the narrative hypno shows sell to crowds about consent appropriate or even socially responsible? Is it okay to imply that toying with the minds and lives of audience members as a form of amusement us acceptable?
Perhaps I’m missing something or maybe all the hypno shows I’ve ever seen have been outliers, but it seems to me that this form of magic is inappropriate, both in its implications and in its practices. I would argue that we should be having more conversations like this, discussions about the moral implications of what we do as performers. Let’s begin to ask ourselves about the true impact of the fantasies we create onstage, the messages we send to our audience, and how those ideas affect people in the long-term. And maybe, just maybe, we can agree that it’s time for hypnosis to go the way of the minstrel show.